Subsequent Injuries: Breaking the Chain of Causation

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission recently reversed the decision of an Arbitrator who found that a slip and fall accident that occurred several months after a work-related foot injury was not causally related to the original accident.  In so finding, the Commission confirmed that the chain of causation was not broken where the underlying work injury was a contributing cause in the subsequent incident.

In its discussion of this case, Timothy Shaughnessy v. City of Chicago, 16 I.W.C.C. 0099 (2016), the Commission noted that the petitioner suffered a right foot fracture on October 31, 2008.  The petitioner treated for several months regarding the foot injury and was later released back to work full duty in February of 2009.  The parties did not dispute that the initial foot injury arose out of and in the course of his employment.  While treating for his foot injury, the petitioner was instructed to use a walking boot on his right foot.  It was the petitioner’s use of this walking boot that was at the center of the dispute in this case.  Specifically, in December of 2008, following a doctor’s appointment for his right foot, the petitioner slipped and fell in the parking lot and suffered head injuries including a contusion, subdural hematoma, temporal bone fracture and hearing loss.  The petitioner testified that there was snow and ice in the parking lot and that he slipped with his right foot, on which he was wearing the walking boot.  The employer denied benefits related to the slip and fall incident and rejected the petitioner’s contention that the resulting head injuries were causally related to the underlying work accident.

At trial, the Arbitrator found that the petitioner sustained a work-related right foot injury in October of 2008.  However, the petitioner had failed to prove that the subsequent slip and fall incident was causally related to the underlying work accident and the Arbitrator awarded no benefits related to that incident.

On review, the Commission found that the evidence supported the inference that the petitioner’s use of the walking boot made it more likely that he could slip and fall in the icy conditions.  This was based, in part, on the petitioner’s testimony that he fell because of both the slippery conditions and the walking boot.  The Commission added that but for the work injury to the right foot, the petitioner would not have been wearing the walking boot which, in addition to the ice and snow, contributed to causing the slip and fall incident.  The Commission found that even though the parking lot conditions may have contributed to the subsequent incident, these conditions did not constitute an “independent intervening cause” and the chain of causation was not broken.  Consequently, the Commission found that the petitioner was entitled to benefits for both the underlying injury and the subsequent head injuries and thus awarded additional medical and permanent partial disability benefits for the petitioner’s head injuries.

As a practical matter, in determining whether a subsequent injury is causally related to an underlying work-related injury, it is important to thoroughly investigate all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the subsequent incident.  In the end, if the claimant can establish that the subsequent injuries were caused, at least in part, by the underlying accidental injuries, the claimant may be entitled additional benefits.

Thanks to attorney Dane Kurth of I&F’s Champaign office for the summary of this case.

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